The Ig Nobel Prizes

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The Nobel Prize. There are few among us who do not know what the prestigious Nobel Prize is. For us, the Nobel Prize is the ultimate symbol of success, of glory, of supreme achievement above the standard measures of men. And practically everyone who received one was a revolutionary. Albert Einstein won one for his work on photons. Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded one in 1991 for her battle for democracy and human rights. The Nobel Prize is what everybody has, at one point in life, dreamed of receiving in Sweden, in front of thousands – millions – of admiring folks.

Yet how many of us have heard of the less prestigious (yet definitely more notorious, and highly coveted) Ig Nobel Prizes?

Ig Nobel?

That’s right. Ig Nobel. (those of you who know what it is may be snickering or shuddering right now)

For the uninformed, the Ig Nobel prizes came about ten years ago, the brainchild of the Massachusetts Cambridge-based HotAir, which is famous, among other things, for its magazine on science humour, the Annals of Improbable Research (AIR). Every year there are ten Ig Nobel prizes up for grabs although the categories may vary. They include: biology, physics, mathematics, medicine, peace, literature, chemistry, hygiene, interdisciplinary research, psychology, peace, economics… you get the idea. The Ig Nobel Prize ceremony is held in October, and the prizes are presented by actual (if bemused) Nobel Laureates.

Whereas the Nobel Prizes are a celebration of outreaching achievements that have benefited people, or will benefit people in the near future, the Ig Nobel prizes (which only began a mere ten years ago) are for “achievements that cannot or should not be reproduced”. Half of these are actually works of incredible genius that simply have no practical value (such as the automobile burglar alarm consisting of a detection circuit and a flamethrower); the other half are just plain warped (take for example the British Royal Navy, who ordered its sailors to stop using live cannon shells and just shout “BANG!”).

The majority of the Ig Nobel Prize recipients are simply earnest, hardworking members of society who one day had incredibly odd ideas, and attained celebrity the next after winning the Igs. However, it may surprise some that some of the recipients are well-known to begin with: Bernard Vonnegut (the brother of notoriously rude author Kurt Vonnegut, and the inventor of cloud seeding) was one, having made his claim to infamy with his “Chicken plucking as a measure of tornado windspeed”; Lee Kwan Yew, former president of Singapore and practitioner of negative reinforcement, was the recipient of the 1994 Psychology prize.

Why a prize for improbability?

If people are being awarded prizes in recognition of their incredible achievements or brilliant talent, why is there Ig Nobel, which is for those whose works are of no practical worth or may never impact society?

Marc Abrahams of HotAir and editor of AIR, has this to say about the Ig Nobel Prizes:

“Prizes aside, most prizes, in most places, for most purposes are clearly designed to sanctify the goodness or badness of the recipients… these prizes, and most others, are meant to honor the extremes of humanity - those whose achievements should be seen as very good or very bad… The Ig Nobel Prize isn't like that. The Ig, as it is known, honors the great muddle in which most of us exist much of the time.”

Unlike other prizes, the Ig Nobel Prizes do not honour or dishonour anybody*. Getting an Ig does not mean that one is an exalted genius, above the measures of man; nor does getting an Ig mean that one is ignorant, mad, a squanderer of time and money, and worthy of only derision looks of condescending pity. No, getting that phonecall from Cambridge and receiving that prize at Harvard simply means that you have achieved something, and that you are getting recognition for it – no matter if it will make you benefactor of humanity, or if it will be handed down generations of grandchildren as a little anecdote of days gone by. The Igs do not discriminate good or bad – that is for the readers, the observers, the peers to judge. It is enough that you accept it with good humour, and feel fortunate that you have done something that people took notice of and gave you a prize for it.

Who is eligible to be nominated? And who picks the winners?

Anybody can be nominated, if they've done something for science that is worth pondering or talking about. You can even nominate yourself, although there is only one case whereby such people (Baerheim and Sandvik) got an Ig.

The Ig Nobel Prize Board of Governors is responsible for sorting through the nominations. The board consists of scientists (some of whom are Nobel Laureates), science writers, athletes, public officials, and other individuals of "greater or lesser eminence". These people go through the nominations, and investigate if these people truly exist, and if they actually did what their nominations claim. In the end, the most imaginative, unusual and curious ones end up with the Ig.

What is the Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony like?

Both the Nobel Prize and the Ig Nobel Prize ceremonies take places in extraordinarily large halls filled with a large number of people. Here is probably where the similarity ends.

The annual Ig Nobel Prize ceremony is held in October (there’s nobody’s death to celebrate) at Sanders Theatre*, Harvard University – which may be slightly less prestigious a place than Stockholm (although at least equally famous!). This theatre, inspired by Christopher Wren’s Sheldonian Theatre at Oxford, England, boasts a seating capacity of 1,166 and “an intimate 180-degree design which provides unusual proximity to the stage.” Those who have graced its podium include Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt and Martin Luther King.

(Tickets for the ceremony, available at the Harvard Box Office, are always sold out. Similarly, prizewinners are expected to fork out their own fare to get to Harvard)

The ceremony traditionally begins with the official celebration of delegates (delegations consist of audience members whose entourage are made up of six or more people), the most colourful of which are picked to parade ostentatiously into the theatre.

This concerns the goings-on at the ceremony, and do not necessarily pertain to the achievements of that year. Beginning in 1996, the ceremony includes the world premiere of a mini-opera every year, based on these themes; these are written by Don Kater and Marc Abrahams, and are performed by professional opera singers and (gasp) actual Nobel Laureates. True to the nature of the Igs, these operettas tickle the funny bone, make rather little sense, and borrow liberally from other (well-known) operas. (And just in case you’re asking, the Laureates have played everything from the children of a scientist* to subatomic particles in these mini-operas. William Lipscomb and Dudley Herschbach are regulars) Sadly, with titles like “Lament del Cockroach” and “Il Kaboom Grosso”, they are highly unlikely to reach the public domain, let alone the pop charts.

There are a number of events that are featured in every ceremony. Two of these are the traditional “Welcome, welcome” opening speech and the “Goodbye, goodbye” closing speech. Then there is the presentation of the Ig Nobel Prizes by actual Nobel Laureates, and the traditional acceptance speeches* of winners, prevalent in most prestigious prize-giving ceremonies (sometimes to the dismay of the less patient), the 24/7 seminars in which the world’s top thinkers explain their subject not once but twice (this means a complete technical description in 24 seconds, and a clear summary that anybody can understand in 7 words*. Nobel Prize-winners are surely spared this gruesome form of torture) Another common event, which members of the audience probably find more appealing, is the Win-a-date-with-a-Nobel-Laureate Contest, where the venue is some popular joint and the prize is a Nobel Laureate.

Other ceremony events vary from year to year. They may include concerts, appearances by famous people (David King, the Chief Scientific Advisor for the British Government showed up in 2002), slide shows, and even a Great Intelligence Debate in 2000 to determine the smartest person in the world.

Following this official ceremony, a number of the year’s winners must endure one day of Ig Informal Lectures*, where they are to give short (10-15 minutes) lectures justifying why they did what they did. Sometimes there is also a separate Ig Medical Lecture as well, which brings the grand total of talks to two.

On a serious note: What are the risks of accepting an Ig? Will I get fired for it?

The Ig council concedes that while there are those who will look upon the Ig Nobel Prizes as a novelty item, and the winners as creative, if slightly mad, people with ordinary lives who have nevertheless accomplished something extraordinary and worthy of (after a fit of giggles) discussion, that there are nevertheless those who are, in the words of Abrahams, quick to “judge, condemn and punish others”. They may be just members of the public with an overdose of skepticism and not enough sense of humour, or – to the detriment of all – people of authority, such as professors, project leaders or employers. In this case, winning an Ig may actually jeopardize a winner’s position in a given workplace or setting.

The Ig Nobel Board of Governors’s dictum is: “First, do no harm.” It is therefore their duty to confer with the scientists who have been considered for an Ig Nobel Prize to determine if winning would cause them any professional difficulties. If receiving an Ig risks putting the winner in jeopardy, then the person is dropped off the list in favour of some other innovative scientist where damage is less likely to happen.

One last note – Abrahams said that “So far as I am aware, winning an Ig has in no way dimmed the prospects for any of these individuals to win a Nobel Prize.” So to all the Nobel Prize hopefuls – there is no need to fear the Igs!

Some Ig Nobel Prize-winners’s articles you may want to read…

  • Winners: Norma E. Bubier, Charles G.M. Paxton, Phil Bowers, and D. Charles Deeming (2002 Biology)
  • Study topic: Ostriches are turned on by humans.
  • Paper/article:"Courtship Behaviour of Ostriches (Struthio camelus) Towards Humans Under Farming Conditions in Britain", Norma E. Bubier, Charles G.M. Paxton, Phil Bowers, and D. Charles Deeming, British Poultry Science, vol. 39, no. 4, September 1998, pp. 477-481]
  • Winner:Buck Weimer (2001 Biology)
  • Study topic: Invention of airtight underwear that safely removes flatulent gasses before people choke on it.
  • Paper/article: Under-Ease
  • Winner:Dr. Len Fisher (1999 Physics)
  • Study topic: The optimal way of dunking a biscuit so that you don’t get lumpy tea.
  • Paper/article: No more flunking on dunking.
  • Winner:Peter Fong (1998 Biology)
  • Study topic: Giving clams Prozac makes them happy.
  • Paper/article: "Induction and Potentiation of Parturition in
    Fingernail Clams (Sphaerium striatinum) by Selective Serotonin Re-
    Uptake Inhibitors (SSRIs)," Peter F. Fong, Peter T. Huminski, and
    Lynette M. D'urso, Journal of Experimental Zoology, vol. 280,
    1998, pp. 260-64


Abrahams, M. 1999. Ig Nobel Prizes: What is this Ig.

----------------- 2000. Ig Nobel Prizes: Would that you won an Ig

----------------- 2001. Ig Nobel Prizes: What prize glory.

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